Funky Art and Monkey Math

When Chicago lawyer Sebastian Hinton was a boy his mathematician father devised a unique way to help his children better understand three-dimensional space. Years later in 1920, Sebastian recounted the tale at a dinner party in the home of the superintendent of schools in Winnetka, Illinois.

What the elder Mr. Hinton had done was build a three-dimensional grid of bamboo poles that his children could climb on, more funky sculpture than traditional toy. When a coordinate was called out (X,Y,Z), young Sebastian and his siblings raced to that location.

Patent picture by Sebastian Hinton, depicting his
Patent picture by Sebastian Hinton, depicting his “JungleGym.” {{PD-1923}}, Public Domain in the US, via Wikimedia.

Sebastian Hinton explained he’d like to build a similar structure for his own children, though he admitted that it had meant more than developing math skills to him, that he’d really just enjoyed scrambling all over it like a monkey. The superintendent, who’d been looking for ways to incorporate more physical education into his curriculum, was impressed.

Not long after, Hinton applied for a couple of patents and set to work creating and installing the first official “Junglegym.” Despite his monkey math skills, Hinton’s first attempt proved too dangerous (even by 1920 standards), but by the second prototype, he had it. Today that second attempt remains on the playground of Crow Island School in Winnetka, where children still scramble all over it like monkeys.

Whether they are learning math in the process or not, children love to climb and swing and explore. And that’s why, when my boys (8 and 10) had the day off school last Friday, I took them to one of our favorite St. Louis destinations, the St. Louis City Museum.

The first floor contains a gorgeous series of tunnels and climbing tunes that winds through animal sculptures, a large treehouse, caverns, and a ton of surprises like a huge aquarium housing giant river fish.
The first floor contains a gorgeous series of tunnels and climbing tunes that winds through animal sculptures, a large treehouse, caverns, and a ton of surprises like a huge aquarium housing giant river fish.

I know the media currently portrays St. Louis as one of the most dangerous cities in the US and I know we’ve had some challenges over the last year or so, but that’s why I have to tell you about some of the great things you’ll be missing if you choose to avoid the city altogether.

Because my city is awesome. And The City Museum is absolutely amazing.

Built inside (and outside and on top of) the old International Shoe building downtown, the “museum” is a giant, evolving, work of art constructed almost entirely of reclaimed industrial and architectural materials. Everywhere you look you’ll find playful sculptures, beautiful mosaics, funky decorations, and more fun than you can imagine.

You’ll receive no map when you enter, and you’d likely not be able to follow one anyway. What you will find is a wildly imaginative series of structures on which people of all ages are encouraged to climb and explore.

Did I mention the skate park (minus the skate boards). Seriously fun.
Did I mention the skate park (minus the skate boards). Seriously fun.

There are enchanted caves, tunnels leading through and below a giant whale and a whimsical tree house. Slides of various sizes (including one that is ten-stories high) snake through the building and circus performers present several shows a day.

Outside the building is a pair of dodge ball pits, suspended aircraft fuselages and a fire engine to explore, a castle turret, lots more slides, and all kinds of connecting walkways and tunnels.

Ball pits aren't just for kids anymore. Well, but they do have a separate one for the wee kiddos, so go ahead. Jump in and play some dodgeball will your obnoxious pre-teens. Just no head shots or you'll be asked to leave.
Ball pits aren’t just for kids anymore. Well, but they do have a separate one for the wee kiddos, so go ahead. Jump in and play some dodgeball will your obnoxious pre-teens. Just no head shots or you’ll be asked to leave.

Opened in 1997, the City Museum has become a downtown destination in St. Louis, unlike any other in the world. It’s a place where children (and adults who WILL be sore the next day) can learn about art, creativity, and imagination, about the kinds of materials that make up a city, and yes, probably even a lot about math, if they want to do that sort of thing. It’s in that sense that The City Museum really is a museum.

But mostly it’s just a great place to climb like a monkey.

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4 thoughts on “Funky Art and Monkey Math

  1. Don’t forget to mention the aquarium and animal rehab on the second floor. There are also behind-the-scene tours where you can hold and feed all manner of reptiles and mammals -the sloth is a favorite – and talk with the birds. I liked petting the rays. BTW, we have no children. We went on a double-date with another 50-something couple. Fun Fun Fun

    1. I know there’s so much I didn’t mention for the sake of word count: the bank vault and hall of mirrors, the shoelace factory, and the third floor ghost just to name a few. I would love to do a tour!

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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